Oxford Academy In Desperate Last Appeal To County School Board For Survival

Having twice had its application for charter renewal denied by the Chino Valley Unified School Board, Oxford Preparatory Academy is once again asking the San Bernardino County Board of Education to consider allowing the academically accomplished institution to function under its aegis.
The move is a risky one because the county board earlier this year declined to hear a previous appeal after Chino Unified denied the renewal application the first time in April.
Timing on renewal is becoming critical because the school’s charter expires June 30, 2017.
Students at Oxford perform extraordinarily well scholastically, largely on the strength of a learning formula put into place by Oxford’s founder, Sue Roche. Ironically, it is action by Roche that has now put Oxford into such a precarious spot.
Chino Valley Unified in 2010 agreed to gamble over $3 million of the district’s revenue in having the district sponsor the establishment of Oxford Preparatory Academy, Roche’s brainchild. Sue Roche had been the principal at Rhodes Elementary School, the highest-performing school in the Chino Valley Unified School District in the early 2000s. With the support of Chino Valley Unified School District Superintendent Wayne Joseph, the district board agreed to sponsor Oxford, with Roche at the helm, functioning from a campus converted from the shuttered El Rancho Elementary School, located at the corner of C Street and Oaks Avenue in Chino. The academy was devoted to good old fashioned book learning along with innovative and specialized approaches to the education of students from kindergarten to the 8th grade, using an even more intensified application of Roche’s already proven formula relying on heavy parental involvement and a rigorous academic focus.
From the outset, students at Oxford Preparatory Academy performed spectacularly on academic achievement tests administered by the state and in 2011 collectively outperformed their counterparts at every other elementary and junior high school in San Bernardino County and did so again on California’s Standard Testing And Reporting (STAR) exams in 2012 and 2013, as well. Oxford had an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 958 in 2011 and improved to 972 in 2012.
The STAR tests measured students’ progress toward achieving California’s state-adopted academic content standards in English-language arts, mathematics, science, and history/social science. Until 2014, the results were used for student and school accountability purposes.
The Oxford undertaking had proved so successful that the number of student applicants to attend the school routinely outran the number of desks and classroom space for them by as much as 600 per year, requiring that the district hold a lottery as a means of granting admission to it. In 2011, the school board unanimously extended Oxford’s charter for five years, from 2012-13 through 2016-17.
Roche expanded the Oxford model, convincing the Capistrano Unified School District to sponsor another campus, the Oxford Preparatory Academy in Mission Viejo. Roche transferred Jason Watts, who had been the principal at Oxford Preparatory Academy in Chino to Mission Viejo, where he served as the Mission Viejo’s inaugural principal/chancellor.
At the Mission Viejo campus, students rang up an impressive 993 academic performance score on the 1,000-point maximum index during the first year the school was open.
But after hitting the academic stratosphere, Roche came crashing to earth. Though she and her teaching method for years had garnered kudos and accolades, Roche was not provided with a commensurate financial reward. To obtain the financial recognition she believed she merited, Roche arranged to go beyond what was available to her as the top administrator at Oxford and cash in. She withdrew from the position of executive director of Oxford Preparatory’s corporate entity and promoted Barbara Black to that position, while assuming an undefined administrative role in the academy that would in time come to be occupied not by herself but a for-profit entity, Edlighten Learning Solutions, in which she is the central figure and prime mover.
Upon Roche’s direction, Black had Oxford Charter Academy enter into a contractual arrangement that would have paid Edlighten $5.3 million to, essentially, employ Roche as the school’s contract administrator and operations director.
With the date for the school board’s determination with regard to renewing Oxford’s charter approaching last spring, Joseph learned of what Roche had done. Perceiving that Roche was seeking to financially exploit the non-profit Oxford Preparatory Academy, Joseph publicly accused Roche of creating and then engaging in a financial conflict of interest which would have the effect, he implied, of shortchanging Oxford Preparatory’s students while enriching herself. Upon Joseph’s recommendation, the school board declined to renew Oxford’s charter.
Initially, Oxford’s internal board asserted the school district’s action was unjustified but then regrouped and terminated its relationship with Roche and Edlighten in May. It then appealed the district’s decision to the county school board, but that body declined to take any action, maintaining that because Oxford changed its management structure, the proposal that Chino Unified had rejected no longer existed. Oxford then turned to the State Department of Education, seeking to get a charter from it. The state has so far not yet agreed to sponsor Oxford. In the meantime, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre made a request for an audit.
That audit, carried out by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team, an adjunct to the California Department of Education, was released at the worst point conceivable for Oxford, just ahead of the Chino Valley Unified School District Board’s scheduled reconsideration of the academy’s charter on November 28.
The 45-page audit summary and report drew the conclusion that Roche’s action may have crossed the line into criminality. The audit cataloged how Roche created a system that involved Yorba Linda-based Edlighten and another entity, the Nevada corporation Educational Excellence, in dodging accountability through what was characterized as a “daisy chain” of payments between for-profit companies which employed her family, friends and associates, including her husband Terry Roche, married daughter Rebecca Baty, son Brian Roche and cousin Nick Califato, all of whom were paid through the organization.
Roche purposefully hid or obscured financial transactions and operations in such a way that the auditors, not to mention Chino Valley Unified officials and even Oxford’s own in-house employees, could not easily track them, according to the audit report. Ultimately, public school funding was diverted to bank accounts controlled by Roche and her associates, according to the audit.
“Interviews indicate that following the petition renewal in 2012, the founder created a complex structure of charter management corporations that exercised significant influence over transactions and contracts between these entities, and secured considerable financial benefit through contracts that charged management service fees up to 10 percent, funneling charter school dollars from Oxford Preparatory Academy schools,” the audit report states, such that Oxford was charged “for services that already existed.”
Oxford Preparatory paid Edlighten $4.2 million in management fees between January 2013 and June 2016, according to the audit. Those numbers were steadily growing, from $821,490 in 2013, $1.2 million in 2014 and $1.3 million in 2015. Edlighten was on track to take in more than $2 million from the academy in 2016, when Edlighten’s contract with Oxford was terminated in May. Due to early termination of the contract, Edlighten received pre-curtailment payments of just $834,522 in 2016.
Though before the release of the audit board president Andrew Cruz and board members James Na and Sylvia Orozco had given Oxford supporters hope they would vote to renew the charter, in the face of Joseph’s presentation of the audit conclusions the board voted unanimously to sever the district from Oxford, despite the fact that the academic performance of the academy’s students are a feather in the district’s cap.
Oxford’s internal board has again lodged a charter renewal petition with the county education office, and the county board of education now has 60 days from the date of that application to render a decision.
In the last two weeks, Oxford was inundated with further bad news. In the wake of what has occurred, Oxford’s board chairman Mike Delgado resigned. The board elevated Andrew Vestey as his replacement. On Wednesday December 14, the Capistrano Unified School District school board, which oversees the Oxford’s charter in Mission Viejo, referenced the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team’s audit in its discussions and passed a resolution to commend it to the attention of Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
Roche’s attorney, Marc Greenberg, has denied his client engaged in any wrongdoing whatsoever, and said Roche has been victimized by both the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team, which has a bias against charter schools in general, and Chino Valley Superintendent Wayne Joseph. Greenberg said that the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team misinterpreted facts and the audit and its report were flawed by the assumption that Roche’s independent companies were not permitted to provide services to the academy. Greenberg claimed that neither Edlighten nor Educational Excellence were affiliated with the Oxford board and were thus legally permitted to have a contractual relationship to the academy under its charter. As to Joseph, Greenberg said he had fabricated charges of misfeasance and malfeasance against Roche because she had shown him up by having Oxford’s students consistently outperform the schools under Joseph’s direct supervision.

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